Cheerleaders and ombudsmen: the sociology of race relations in Britain (with Jenny Bourne)

Written with Jenny Bourne, published in Race & Class, 21/4, Spring 1980.


There is a dangerous sociology abroad – a sociology of race relations, that is – and dangerous to the black cause that it seeks to espouse. It emanates from the new set-up of the SSRC (Social Science Research Council) ethnic unit at Aston (University) under John Rex. It purports to ameliorate the condition of the black minorities, and the black young in particular, by appeals to enlightened capitalism. And, in that, it could be allowed to pass the blacks by, except that at a time of concerted and massive attack on black people by the state, to hold the centre ground against academics who abstract and distort black experience (however unwittingly) becomes vitally important.

To understand the new sociology, one must understand the old and locate them both in the dialectical struggles between increasing state racism and growing black resistance.

In the beginning, in the colonial period, blacks were people you stud­ ied in their native habitat – so as to inform colonial rule and authenti­ cate an ideology of racial superiority. But as the colonies achieved ‘independence’ and the colonial  administrators came home, the focus of interest in the former colonial subjects shifted to the dock areas of Great Britain, where the first black settlements had become established. The first systematic s\udy of the black natives in the British context was undertaken by Kenneth Little, an anthropologist at Edinburgh Uni­ versity. He went to Cardiff’s dockland in the 1940s, as a physical anthropologist, to measure the heads of black children. But when he saw the condition of black people there and experienced what he termed ‘a slice of the reality about which my African friends in Cambridge had told me’, he ditched his preconceived notions and models and addres­ sed himself to the social issues instead. And in the analysis that followed he came up with a colour-class hypothesis which took in the historical legacy of colonialism to explain the prevailing ideas of black inferior­ ity -which, had his successors but followed, might have led to a signifi­ cant corpus of work on race and class .

Their research, however, was triggered off by a different phenome­non. Post-war Britain, desperate to build up its industries and desperate for labour, had turned to its colonies and ex-colonies for the extra man­ power it needed. (The Nationality Act of 1948, with an eye to British labour needs, granted UK citizenship to colonial and ex-colonial citizens.) Black labour from the West Indies and the Asian sub-conti­nent was encouraged to come to Britain. London Transport opened a recruiting office in Trinidad; the Tory Minister of Health (Enoch Powell) looked to the Caribbean for nurses to staff his understaffed hospitals; textile factories, foundries, etc., looked to India and Paki­stan for their workers. The fillip to immigration gave a boost to social science, in this subject area anyway. And so, in the mid 1950s, two more social scientists set out to discover whether the new settlers were fitting into British society and, if not, why. Where their journey took them was, of course, to the old dock areas. Anthony Richmond, a student of Little’s, looked at Liverpool’s West lndians, Michael Banton, under Little’s supervision, studied Stepney. 3They were both concerned to examine the degree of ‘assimilation’ and of ‘adjustment’ in these com­munities. To what extent were the blacks fitting in? Were they success­ fully becoming British? Banton was concerned that Asians showed less likelihood of being assimilated; the West Indians, but for their colour, were British anyway. The emphasis of these studies put the responsi­ bility for change entirely on the blacks. That British society and its people might, in fact, be blocking such assimilation was explained away in terms such as ‘in-group out-group’ and ‘strangeness’, borrowed from the race relations literature of the USA – almost as though white hostility was an inevitable and understandable part of human nature. Within two years – a year before the riots of Nottingham and Notting Hill (1958)- Sydney Collins was addressing himself to the race ‘problem’.* In a comparative study of the internal organisation of Negro, Moslem and Chinese port comm unities, he wrote about ‘allaying the fears’ of white society. He judged the ’emergent’ associations of immigrant groups as very often ‘maladjusted’, lacking leadership, ‘unstable’. He felt that immigrants should not ‘contrive to observe folkways alien to British society’.

*It is as well to remember that the publication of these studies post-dated their writing by at least a year.

If the ports represented one area of the ‘black presence’, the overseas students represented another. The knowledge that colonial students were the ambassadors for Britain back home and represented a possible ruling class in the newly-independent states made them a focus of politi­cal concern, and of interest to the researcher. The Political and Econo­mic Planning (PEP) report of 1955 pointed out that it was on colonial students that ‘the responsibilities of leadership in the swiftly developing countries … must fall to a large extent’.’ And A.T. Carey, one year later, examined this ‘elite among colonial society’ because ‘British official policy recognises the importance of training colonials in the professional and technical fields’.

But as immigration continued (demands for some kind of control were now beginning), a more disciplined and academic body of research began to emerge. The first such work was White and Coloured, in which Banton attempted a sociology of race relations* –  departing from psychological explanations of individual behaviour to the study of the structures and norms governing behaviour. Though white  people appeared well-disposed to blacks, ran his argument, they prefer­ red to keep a ‘social distance’ because of the pressure of group norms. Strangers had different norms and one was wary of them, but in react­ing to blacks one was reacting to the ‘archetypal stranger’. At around the same time Sheila Patterson was also trying to find a sociological model into which to fit her field-work** in Brixton. But she was not yet as advanced as Banton and rejected the relevance of colour to the whole issue. She preferred to explain her findings within a neutral ‘host­ immigrant’ framework: the ‘dark strangers’ would fit in one day, like the Poles, the Jews and the Italians before them.

The studies of  this period  were concerned  with describing how the immigrants lived, what their customs were and how they were adapting to British society, and reflected what Sivanandan has termed the ‘laissez-faire’ period of immigration (to Britain). Britain needed all the workers it could get – ‘you couldn’t get an armless, legless man never mind an  able-bodied one’,  said  a  Midlands  foundry  superinten­dent – and the market forces of supply and demand would regulate  their numbers. No provision was made for their social needs. They were just units of labour, ready-made at that, and had to fight it out  with the white working class for the dwindling stock of houses, schools, welfare services – and that in the decaying inner-city areas where such stocks were at their lowest. Business and government, while deriving (econo­mic) profit from ‘immigrant’ labour, left it to the workers, both black and white, to carry its social cost. In the process the blacks became defined as the cause of social decay in the inner-city areas and not its symptom.

But nowhere in the literature of the period was there a hint of such an analysis. So that when the race riots broke out in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958 and Kelso Cochrane was killed, the nation was momentarily transfixed in a posture of moral outrage and sought ready scapegoats in a handful of ‘hooligans’ – finding its finest expression in the judgement of Lord Justice Salmon. ‘You are a minute and insignifi­cant section of the population’, he declared, passing sentence on nine white youths, ‘who brought shame on the district in which you lived and have filled the whole nation with horror, indignation and disgust … ‘

* * *

The academics were, by nature, slow to respond. But the IRR, which since its inception in the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1952 (becoming an independent body in 1958) had concerned itself with ‘race relations’ abroad (‘it’ was not something that happened here),  was quick to grasp the nettle. It had, after all, been set up for that purpose and, as an independent research body, it was in a position to assess the situation objectively, and advise the policy-makers. Immediately after the riots it commissioned James Wickenden to look at the problem. JO And soon afterwards it asked a number of writers, under the aegis of Professor J .A.G. Griffith, to make a factual assessment of the national race relations scene.

Underlying both these studies there was still a sense of moral outrage and a disbelief that ‘it’ could have happened here. ‘British people’, wrote Judith Henderson in the Griffith report, ‘take a pride in their national traditions of freedom and justice … lt is therefore distressing for us to read of disturbances … where white and coloured people have come to blows.’ Racialism was un-Christian, un-British and un­reasoning. It was the Institute’s task, therefore, to investigate the relations between the races dispassionately, in a scientific manner, edu­cate the public with facts and bring reason to bear on emotion. It was possible in Britain (unlike South Africa) ‘to argue one’s case with the government and the government would show reason – so long as the case was reasonable’ .

It was this combination of Christian morality and a juridicial concept of the reasonable man that was to characterise the work of the IRR under its first and founding director, Philip Mason. And it was the IRR which was, from 1958 for at least a decade, to influence all race relations thinking in Britain. This research was less concerned with the collection of field-work data and the construction of models than with bringing ‘facts’ to bear on public debate, so as to influence and advise government in particular. For the time being the ‘academisation’ of race relations had come to a halt. Events were moving too fast for that. Research had to be oriented to action; it had to influence policy.

But by 1962 a Tory government had sufficiently overcome its horror of racialism to introduce a racist immigration act. The end of the post­ war  boom  and  the  beginnings   of   recession –  hard   economic facts – dictated that Britain should gear the entry of black labour to economic needs and weigh the social cost of immigration against its economic benefits.

Thus government policy combined (racial) immorality and reason. What should the Institute do? The Institute’s reaction was not to bring censure to bear on the government’s ‘immorality’, but to seek yet more facts with which to influence the reasonable man (and perhaps the reasonable party – the Labour Party). Hence,  Mason commissioned the Survey of Race Relations (SRR), a ‘Myrdal-type study for Britain’, in the belief that:

the situation in Britain was fluid – in that neither the native commun­ity nor the immigrants had established any settled pattern of behaviour … and it seemed that a review of the situation coupled with the encouragement of some work to fill the immediate gaps, would focus attention and help to avoid mistakes.

In Jim Rose, and especially in his assistant, Nicholas Deakin, whom Mason brought to the Institute to direct the Survey, he had men whose interests were also directed to influencing public opinion in general and the Labour Party in particular.

The 1962 Act, though, had changed the contours of race relations research. It was no longer enough to publish findings that would influ­ence white attitudes and public policy when the government itself seemed to think that black people were ‘the problem’. Hence, if the IRR and, more specifically, the SRR, was to look at race relations objec­tively, it had to side-step the government and view the matter in a ‘social problem’ framework. The blacks may not be a problem, but their pres­ ence did throw up problems; that was not to say that racial prejudice and discrimination were not also problems. And it was still possible to speak to policy, if only to Labour Party policy.

But in the 1965 White Paper Labour capitulated to the racist ideology of the day, restricting black immigration yet further and justifying it in terms of better race relations. ‘Without integration’, intoned Labour spokesman Roy Hattersley, ‘limitation is inexcusable; without limitation, integration is impossible’. Even if it appeared that Labour was doing the wrong thing, there was little doubt that they were doing it for the right reason. And the IRR, quick to appreciate Labour’s legerdemain – in holding on to reason  without  letting  go of  moral­ity – found a way out of its own impasse. ‘We are determined’, said Philip Mason in the Guardian of 23 December 1965, ‘to cut down sharply the number of fresh entries until this mouthful has been digested.’ And that ‘digestion’, of course, was to be facilitated by the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants and its voluntary liaison committees, on the one hand, and the Race Relations Board and its local conciliation committees, on the other. Hence the Institute, through the Survey, moved away from looking at the ‘negative aspects’ of immigration to look at the ‘positive aspects’ of integration. And in Roy Jenkins’ definition of integration ‘not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diver­ sity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’ (May 1966)- Deakin et al found a doctrine which, with differing emphases but always the same core, was to inform the Institute’s research for the next few years. They developed a school of thinking (as opposed to a school of thought) which held that if racialism, seen as the cultural intolerance underlying and giving rise to racial discrimination, was educated away, equal opportunity would begin to flourish. This could be achieved not least through the anti-discriminatory legislation which their guru Jenkins had promised. They approached race relations, then, in terms of cultural relations (like the earlier assimilationists) and not in terms of power relations, least of all state power. (It was an approach that was to find its echo in the Bristol ethnic school a decade later.)

Consequently, the growth of black consciousness and the rise of black militancy passed the IRR and its Survey by. Of course, those who prided themselves on being the ‘young Turks’ of the Institute had involved themselves in the lobbying crusade of CARD (Campaign Against Racial Discrimination), only to break  away  when it  threatened to become more politically aggressive.* But by and large the Institute continued to churn out cultural studies explaining customs, beliefs, behaviour, values and attitudes of immigrants to white society: Sikhs in Southall, Pakistanis in Bradford, Chinese in London, West Africans in London, Cypriots in Britain, etc. They were occasionally interspersed with more factual (neutral) studies such as Immigrants and Employ­ment in East London, Spring Grove: the education of immigrants, Indian Workers’ Associations, and Immigrants in Industry.

*CARD itself  broke  up over  the question  in  1967 .

Journalists, teachers, aspiring academics –  all were recruited  to the race industry of the Institute and its Survey. And in 1967 an attempt was even made to bring in ‘proper’ academics, such as Banton and Rex, to a thirty-years  race research  project  which  Mason  had  envisaged. But neither the plethora of literature nor the massing of the cognoscenti seemed to improve race relations or influence government policy one iota. And when, in 1968, a Labour government outdid the Tories and brought in an Immigration Act from which all pretence at morality had fled,• the Institute’s answer was to rush its seven-year survey into print.

When Colour and Citizenship was published in 1969, the book and its authors were greeted not only by public but even some government acclaim. It was a massive tome, devoted almost exclusively to the empi­rical. Where it was not, it concerned itself with recommendations for better race relations. It examined the backgrounds of the main immigrant groups and the ‘push and pull’ factors that  had  brought them to Britain. Three chapters were devoted to an examination of their numbers from every conceivable angle, including a statistical project­ ion about the future size of the coloured population of England and Wales, thereby giving validity to Labour /Tory orthodoxy that numbers were the problem and that numbers and good race relations were organically linked. The book also examined immigrants’ access to housing, employment and education, and attempted to examine local and national policy responses to black people. It also came up with its own attitudes survey, which said that the majority of the British people were not racially prejudiced. Finally, it made seventy-eight recommen­dations, all bar one aimed at government, employers, trade unions, churches, etc.

*The ‘morality’ that the Act held out was quite simply that British citizens ceased to be British citizens when they were black British citizens in East Africa.

The ‘philosophy’ and purpose of Colour and Citizenship were expressed very clearly by Deakin in the book’s revised version:

‘Any proposals for the amelioration of relationships between minor­ities and majority – and this book is intended principally as a con­structive contribution towards policy making in this field – must be justified in purely practical terms … [and] have an application to the real problems of the adjustment process …’

And the adjustment process entailed the elimination of racial prejudice and therefore racial discrimination. For they saw discrimination itself as a matter of prejudice – prejudiced employers, prejudiced unions, prejudiced workers, etc. -not as a matter of exploitation. Race relations, in other words, was a problem, like unemployment, delin­quency, crime or housing, which could be resolved ‘without compro­mising either the cultural integrity of our society or the values and principles which animate it’ . The social problem framework into which the Institute’s researchers had retreated in response to govern­ ment’s racialist policies had here found its fullest expression.

Other aspects of the Institute’s work, such as its library and informa­tion service and its monthly Race Today,were more immune to govern­ment racism. And their concerns were to be voiced by Robin Jenkins, a researcher in the Institute’s International  Race Studies Programme, in a paper delivered at the British Sociological Association on ‘The Production  of  Knowledge  in  the  Institute  of  Race  Relations’ .    In  it Jenkins pointed out that the approach of Colour and Citizenship was not scientific but ideological, and that the knowledge contained in it made the power elite more powerful and the powerless more impotent. He warned blacks not to submit themselves to the scrutiny of white researchers who, in effect, acted as spies for the government. They should, he said, be told to ‘fuck off’.

Jenkins’ critique may have emanated more from an academic’s search for truth than from a commitment to the black struggle as such, but it opened up a major debate as to the whole direction of race relations research and provided a catalyst in the struggle to transform the Institute itself. That struggle had grown out of the opposition to the race relations  philosophy  that  Colour  and  Citizenship  epito­mised -which in turn was a reflection of the struggle outside. Black people were being subjected  to  institutionalised  racism  at  every turn – at the ports of entry, with the police, in the courts, in the schools, in housing and employment. Market researchers (not academics) had found a 20 per cent unemployment rate among north London’s  black youngsters. A black teacher had revealed that in certain schools for the educationally subnormal, nearly all the children were black.2′> The Mangrove Restaurant (a meeting place for black activists) was con­stantly raided, black youth clubs were subject to attack from the police, black leaders were being rail-roaded to jail on conspiracy charges. Race Today, the lnstitute’s magazine, was beginning to open its pages to ‘the voices of the victims’: a black prisoner smuggled out a letter about prison conditions, black trials were followed in detail, black power was examined – by a black power advocate.

But the Survey team, continuing as the Joint Unit for Minority and Policy Research (JUMPR),was as impervious to black reality as it was to state racism. A Tory government which proposed drastic immigra­tion restrictions that put all black Commonwealth citizens on a par with aliens, converting them into rightless gastarbeiter,made no impression on the research outlook. (Lobbying against legislation was done, but in isolation from the ‘serious’ long-term research work.) JUMPR refused to confront the issue of what policy-oriented researchers could do when the policy-makers they were addressing had become part of the pro­ blem. Some of their studies reflected the preoccupations of the 1950s, for example, ‘the adjustment study’, funded by the Social Science Research Council, to examine ‘the process of adjustment through which coloured immigrants and their children are passing, in order to establish indices of their relative permanence (or transience)’. Then there was the fact-finding Survey-type research, such as the school­ leavers study, a joint project with the Inner London Education Author­ity, ‘to discover the comparative job prospects of black and white school-leavers’. And finally there was the ‘new’-style research which seemed to give token recognition to black disadvantage, but under the rubric of urban sociology, subsuming it to the general social disadvan­tage of the inner city. It was no more than the ‘enlightened’ section of government was already doing in its Urban Programme and Commun­ity Development projects.

But  the  books  that  had  poured  out  of   IRR   for   over   a decade – somewhere around one-hundred volumes in all and something like 85 per cent of the literature on race in Britain – had slowed down to a trickle. Three of them, though, reflected the ongoing transformation of the IRR itself. Not fortuitously they were the work of foreign scholars: Heineman’s The Politics of the Powerless (an analysis of CARD), Katznelson’s Black Men White Cities (a political analysis of government policy) and Castles and Kosack’s Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe.

The dispute in the IRR, which finally came to a head in 1972 and involved politicians, the media, community groups, practitioners and academics, had gone far beyond Jenkins’ critique. Where the funda­mental problem lay was now the issue. It was not black people who should be examined, but white society; it was not a question of educating blacks and whites for integration, but of fighting institutional racism; it was not race relations that was the field for study, but racism.

* * *

That was the message of the struggle that transformed the IRR and the academics who had supported the staff. Race relations research could never be the same again. Apart from anything else the early 1970s had seen the emergence of blacks writing on their own realities and questioning the values and methods that white sociologists were using on them. Already in 1969 Sivanandan had written a critique of liberal­ism in the Institute’s Newsletter,which showed up the contradictions of the liberal position and especially its commitment to peaceful change in the face of issues which were no longer capable of resolution within the existing structure of society.  By 1972 he argued, in Race Today, that government immigration and race relations policy was meant ‘to reconcile … the economics of discrimination with the sociology of dislocation, while hanging on to the ethos of liberal democracy’. The Race Relations Acts pointed ‘to the rising social cost of discrimination in relation to the fall in the surplus value derived from second-class pro­duction factors that cannot be disposed of in times of recession’. Gus John, a Grenadian, was to attack the white academics.

*Departments to study the immigrants spring up like mushrooms, fin­anced by trusts and foundations. Yet the only relationship most of them have with black groups is that of visitors to the zoo. Their find­ings are never meant to enable the deprived to take action .

He was, no doubt, influenced in this view by the fight he had to put up with the Runnymede Trust to get out the unexpurgated version of his report on Handsworth, which the Trust itself had commissioned. This report, with later works such as Dilip Hiro’s Black British White British (1971) was to tell white academics quite firmly that their role as inter­preter was over. The black power phase had belatedly begun to find its way into the literature: the policy-oriented researchers had to give up their academic pretensions, the academics had to move out of the hustle and bustle of the market place and find their own niches. JUMPR’s researchers had found alternative homes even before the IRR debacle was resolved. And the Community Relations Commission (CRC) Ref­erence Division stepped in to take on the main burden of policy-orien­ted research (it belonged there after all). The industrial unit of the Runnymede Trust (an organisation initiated by the Institute in the late 1960s to provide more short-term and immediate research) was to take on much of JUMPR’s role, especially as mediator with employers and unions. All that was left of the Institute was Race Today, which was soon hived off as an independent political journal, the library and Race, the lnstitute’s academic journal. Race was the last part of the IRRto change direction. But in 1975 it became Race& Class,reflecting in its title commitment to an analysis directed to social change. New Community, published by the CRC (under the editorship of Sheila Patterson), took over exactly where Race had stopped – taking the issues, authors and the ‘commitment to non-commitment’ that Race & Class had rejected. Occasionally an academic reared his head, for example Danny Lawrence with Black Migrants: White Natives , but, steeped in the Colour and Citizenship assumptions and traditions, soon sank without trace. The Survey’s own legacy was apparently limitless: some ten years after being commissioned, Dennis Brooks limped home with his study of London Transport. Only Alan James’ Sikh Children in Britain (1975), in which he explained ‘them’ to ‘us’, was a premonition of the ethnic school to come.29

The two outstanding books of this time to be written by whites, and in a non-academic style (Racism and Black Resistance and A  Portrait of English Racism) , spoke to the  issues  that  the  IRR  struggle  had thrown up – little wonder since both authors, Robert Moore and Ann Dummett, had experienced the Institute’s transformation and both aimed to expose the racism in white society. Robert Moore and Tina Wallace’s Slamming the Door (not as powerful a book as Moore’s first paperback) did, in examining the impact of immigration control from the black point of view, indicate how researchers could put their knowledge at the disposal of those fighting racism by exposing white racist institutions.

But even as the policy-oriented researchers were beginning to dis­perse, the academics had begun to gather. At its 1969 annual conference the British Sociological Association had already discussed ‘The Sociology of Race and Racialism’ with the intention of integrating ‘race relations into general sociological theory’. Clearly the academics were dissatisfied with the then dominant IRR-type ‘social problem’ orien­tation in race relations – it did not provide an adequate basis for socio­logical theory. Questions were raised as to the use of the term ‘race relations’ to describe an interpersonal process which precluded quest­ ions of class, market access and power. Where race relations had not been defined as a ‘social problem’ it had been analysed purely as a cul­tural issue, and contained concepts such as ‘cultural strangeness’. But although the strangeness wore off, racialism increased, and this concept became more and more threadbare. The implicit assumption of a consensus on common values as a pre-requisite to social integration (for example in Colour and Citizenship and in Banton) came under fire from two separate ‘schools’. There were those who preferred a theory of cul­tural pluralism in opposition to the consensus view of British society and there were those, like John Rex, who were opposed to both the ‘ethno­centric’ and the ‘cultural pluralist’ view of society. Rex argued that: any attempt to explain the structure and dynamics of race-relations situations in terms of the strangeness of the newcomer, of culture shock, or in terms of immigrant and host, is  inadequate …  We would insist that without the power or stratification element there would be no race-relations problem.

But in the event the pluralist school won out and, funded by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), took up habitation in Bristol University under Banton’s wing in 1971. (Rex’s day was yet to come.) All academic research for the next few years was to emanate from this body, the SSRC Unit on Ethnic Relations at Bristol.

* * *

Meanwhile, the state, having ended all primary settler immigration with the 1971 Act, got down to the serious business of bringing the blacks into line, particularly the second-generation blacks who threatened to disrupt the body politic. The embourgeoisement schemes of 1968-76 had dealt with the recalcitrant section of the ‘first generation’ – by fun­nelling vast amounts of money into once-autonomous black organisations such as youth clubs, nurseries, supplementary schools, hostels for the homeless, self-help groups, workshops for learning skills and advice centres -via Urban Aid, Community Development Pro­grammes, CRCs, etc. But the blacks who had been born here -and that meant almost half the black population -were less susceptible to the blandishments of the state. The West Indian youth refused to do the shit work their parents had done and were in open rebellion against the state; the Asian youth had taken upon themselves the defence of their people against the fascists, the police and the judiciary. United the young blacks would pose a problem for the state that it would find difficult to contain. The state was anxious – and it showed in the White Paper on racial discrimination in September 1975. Listen, wrote Sivanandan, in an evocative passage in Race,Class and the State,

Listen to the voice, the anxieties of the state:

‘the character of the coloured population resident in this country has changed dramatically over the decade. Ten years ago, less than a quarter of the coloured population had been born here: more than three out of every four coloured persons then were immigrants to this country … About two out of every five of the coloured people in this country now were born here and the time is not far off when the majority of the coloured population will be British born.’

And ‘this leaven of energy and resourcefulness’, continued the White Paper, ‘should not be allowed to lie unused or be deflected into negative protest on account of arbitrary and unfair discriminatory practices.’ It was a concern that the House of Commons Select Committee was to pick up in its report shortly afterwards: ‘the alienation of some of the young blacks cannot be ignored and action must be taken before relations deteriorate further and create irreconcilable division’ .

The militancy of black workers too was a cause for the state’s concern. Right through the previous decade in strike after strike – at Woolf’s, Courtauld’s, Mansfield’s, Imperial Typewriters’ – a pre­dominantly Asian work-force, deprived of union support, had entered into (independent) struggles, which by their very nature were political. Now, in the Grunwick strike of 1976-7, at a time when the Labour gov­ernment was beginning to dismantle institutional racism, on the one hand (because big capital need it no longer), and to incorporate the working class into a social contract with government, on the other, a black work-force threatened to disrupt both strategies. Unless the Grunwick workers were unionised, they could not be brought into the social contract. Hence there was little surprise – for the analysts in Race &Class anyway – either in the trade union espousal of the Grunwick cause or in the presence of cabinet ministers and MPs on the picket line. (When had the black cause ever found such exalted support from trade unionists and ministers of government alike?)

* * *

It is in the light of these developments, both in state racism and in black resistance, that the work of the Unit in Ethnic Relations and its acolytes must be assessed. In essence what they set out to study was not the relat­ions between races as defined by their colour but the relations between ethnic groups as defined by their culture. British society was not to be viewed as some sort of homogenous cultural monolith (as their prede­cessors were wont to do) but as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society. And the business of the ethnic school was to show how these several eth­nicities served to ameliorate, mediate, buffer the injustices of white society. In the process of that struggle it was even possible that those ethnicities themselves could become redefined.

The earliest book in the genre, Migrants and Refugees by Patricia Jeffery,   hoped  to  show  ‘the  way  in  which  certain  elements  of  the migrant’s culture can be protected and how children may be brought up in a domestic setting in Britain’ – and thereby provide a contrast to the ethnocentric studies of the past which looked at how immigrants adjusted to British society by ceding up their cultures. Similarly, Saifullah Khan, in an essay on Pakistanis (‘Mirpuri Villagers at Home and in Bradford’), testifies to a wish to challenge the ethnocentric ten­dencies of earlier sociologists and emphasises the immigrant viewpoint instead. But she goes further than Jeffery, adding that ‘understanding the internal dynamics of an ethnic minority in Britain involves studying the process of interaction or reaction of these cultural preferences and patterns of behaviour with external determinants’. Ethnicity, she points out in another essay on working South Asian women, is flexible and adaptive to changing times and situations.

Brooks and Singh, in a rarified essay on Asian ‘brokers’ in British foundries, under the pretentious title ‘Pivots and Presents’ (in Wall­man’s Ethnicity at Work’), take some of Khan’s ideas to absurd lengths. Having acknowledged that labour shortages led to black recruitment and that racism determined the types of jobs available to blacks, the authors conclude that immigrants’ ‘own distinctive tradi­tions and their own ethnic identities … in turn influenced their occupational and industrial distribution. In a sense, these specific cultural and ethnic aspects were … superimposed, on  the industrial organisations of the metropolitan country.’

Wallman, in her introduction to the book, bids fair to outvie even Brooks and Singh in the ethnicity versus racism stakes; in her writing there is even a hint that ethnicity and not racism might be the more important determinant. ‘The effect of their ethnicity is therefore dependent upon the state of the economic system and on their bargain­ing strength within it. Conversely, they will not see, will not accept, will not succeed in the opportunity offered if it is not appropriate to their choice of work and their cultural experience.’ (Now we know why black teachers became bus drivers and skilled black workers prefer to do un­skilled jobs.)

With Geoffrey Driver, however,  our  poor  little ethnicity  is returned to a bearable role – as a means of combating racism. In a widely-publi­cised study of West Indian ‘achievement’  in  New  Society, he reported that West Indians were now doing better than whites in 16+ public exams because of their newfound ethnicity and sense of identity, which was helping them achieve. And if the West Indian girls did better than the boys, it was because of factors peculiar to Jamaican family struct­ures – like, say, matriarchy. The implication was (and the media broad­ cast it thus) that even if there was racism in British schools, black child­ren suffered no disadvantage that ethnicity could not overcome. (Ethni­city must be some sort of boot-strap by which you pulled yourself up.) But more: ‘Where ethnic minority pupils are getting better results than majority pupils … these West Indian and Asian youngsters are a real and positive resource in the struggle to rehabilitate and redevelop the physical, social, cultural and economic fabric of the industrial towns and cities in which they live … ‘(So just by being minorities, they pro­vided an added bonus to society.) And on to the righteous conclusion: ‘We should be more sensitive to community and sex-role differences, not less. Educational progress, in this case at least, means being not only egalitarian, but also pluralist.’

Then there are ethnicity writers for whom the reaction, even resistance, to ‘external determinants’ such as racism is built into ethni­city. In fact, ‘one cannot understand the history and character of these [black] minorities’, says James L. Watson, ‘without analysing their dif­fering reactions to white racism’. Young Sikhs and Jamaicans ‘often feel that they do not “fit” in either culture … Largely in response to racism, these two minorities have begun a process of ethnic redefi­nition … which entails the active recreation of a new cultural tradition that only has meaning in the British context.

In Catherine Ballard’s hands Watson’s ‘ethnic redefinition’ becomes ‘reactive ethnicity’: ‘While synthesising aspects of both Asian and British cultures some young Asians seem to be reacting to the rejection they experience from British society by taking renewed pride in their separate cultural identity. ‘ And she cites examples that include a return to traditional clothing, native language and the like.

Roger Ballard, in a study of ethnic minorities and the social services, puts this more succinctly. ‘Members of the younger generation’, he says, ‘are utilising their ethnic resources both to resist pressures put upon them by the majority and to challenge the unequal  position  in which they find themselves … ‘ Hence, ‘what is urgently required is re­ cognition of both the experience and the legitimacy of ethnic interests whatever they may be’.

These then are the principal themes and variations of the ethnic school. (There are others like Miles and Phizacklea who dwell on its fringes and need to be dealt with separately.} Quite obviously there is nothing that ethnicity cannot do except change power relations in society. But that, of course, would require a race/class analysis-an investigation of racism as a rationale and justification for capitalist exploitation, but without subordinating the cultural aspects to the eco­nomic, for that would be to err on the side of economism. To look exclusively at ethnic relations, on the other hand, is to err on the side of culturalism, culture for its own sake, for defence at best -not culture as a determinant of change, a strategy for combat, a weapon for offence. Culturalism in practice leads to a cul de sac nationalism, defeatist, inward looking, in-breeding – incapable of changing the power relations in society, but content to cope with them, react to them, perhaps even resist them. To put it differently, cultural pluralism, the framework, and multi-culturalism, the solution, deal with neither (institutional) racism nor class questions. ‘Reactive ethnicity’, or cultural resistance, can only be a resistance to racialism in British soci­ety. Racialism is not about power but about cultural superiority. Racism is not about cultural superiority but about power; and the resistance to racism must in the final analysis be political resistance, expressed perhaps in cultural forms.

The Bengalis who sat down in Brick Lane in 1977 and refused to move were not indulging in an Asian or peasant tradition as a means of recreation on a Sunday morning. They were bringing an Asian cultural form of resistance to bear on their British fight against racism: the fas­cists should not sell their wares in the community, the Bengalis would be terrorised no longer. Equally, the life-styles of Afro-Caribbean youth, however expressed, constitute a political threat to the dominant values of capitalist society. West Indian cultures are, by the very nature of their slave and plantation histories, anti-racist and  anti-capitalist. If you have been bought and sold, and lynched and raped and oppressed and exploited, just because of your race, it is not hard to make the con­nection between racism and exploitation. And it is the consciousness of that connection, whether among West Indians or Asians and however arrived at (through slave or peasant exploitation), that makes for politi­cal struggles across race lines; it is its denial that makes for the purely culturalist movements that threaten nobody. The business of black acti­vists has been to keep alive that consciousness and thereby transform race struggle into class struggle. The business of the state has been to prevent such a transformation by diverting the black ‘leaven of energy and resourcefulness’ into harmless ethnic channels. And the pluralists, by freezing the dynamics of race struggle in culture or ethnicity, sub­ serve the interests of the state. At best, they are no more than the self­ appointed cheer-leaders of ethnic resistance, and as such are absolved from combating the racism of their own organisations, institutions, curricula, practice or whatever; at worst, their theories help to launder social control and serve it up as legitimate black demands.*

It is perhaps the recognition of these facts that makes Miles and Phizacklea stand, self-consciously, to one side of the ethnic school proper. They are prepared to entertain the notion that ‘blacks may organise themselves politically’ through ‘the class unity process, the ethnic organisation process and the black unity process’, but conclude that ‘racial discrimination in the industrial sphere has forced black workers to pursue their interests through ethnic organisation’. In  fact, so different are the ‘cultural characteristics of the Asian ethnic groups from the West Indian’ and so ‘substantial’ the ‘hostility’ between them that it was unlikely that West Indian and Asian workers could ‘organise collectively to pursue common interests’.•’

 But how could they have organised collectively when they work sep­arately? For, by and large, West Indians and Asians (men and women separately) have been channelled into different sectors of employment and different sections of the labour process;** management has even gone out of its way to create ethnic shifts. The opportunity for West Indian/ Asian solidarity in one factory has been slight – though it did occur at some of the factories which had a mixed labour force, such as the London Rubber  Company,  GEC  Coventry’s  electro-plating section and, most notably, at Grunwick’s, where West Indian drivers (members of the TGWU) came out in support of Asian women process-workers (members of APEX). And it has certainly obtained in the communities and on the streets, particularly among young blacks, where white racialism compounded by police harassment makes no distinction between West Indian and Asian. It has been there in the protests at the murders of Michael Ferreira and Altab Ali, in the Virk Brothers defence committee, in the battle of Southall and in organisations like Blacks Against State Harassment,  the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent and the Black Socialist Alliance. Some of these organisations may, by the very nature of the struggle, be short-lived, but the struggle itself is continuous and un­folding.

*The search for black identity, history and culture which emerged (in the late 1960s and early 1970s) had grown spontaneously out of the need to inform black struggles against racism. But, even as they promised to become political. they were co-opted and bought up by the state and handed back to blacks on ethnic self-help platters. Black studies. black history. black arts and crafts became institutionalised into the education system and multi-cultural and multi-ethnic –not anti-racist -education became all the rage.

**As they were in the colonies of the Caribbean and East Africa.

And it is precisely this combined militancy of West Indian and Asian youth that has, on the one hand, agitated the state afresh and, on the other, rendered the ethnic theorists politically irrelevant – though ideologically they still hold hegemony over education (multi-racial, multi-ethnic), the media (ethnic programmes for ethnic groups), the arts, etc. It is not entirely fortuitous, therefore, that by 1979 the cultural pluralists, their theses completed and their field-work done, should have dispersed to colleges of further education, social work departments, language centres and the like, there to teach the teachers, the social workers, the practitioners of the 1980s – while still attempting, through their ceaseless attendance at conferences and submission of articles to journals like New Community, to sell the cultural pluralist model to policy-makers who have already bought it. Nor is it by chance that Banton ‘s school of ethnic sociology should have given way to Rex’s school of political sociology – cultural pluralism to political pluralism.

* * *

At first sight, John Rex’s preoccupations appear to be the same – for example, he has spoken out in favour of ethnography, he has described in his writing a ‘defensive confrontation’ amongst young blacks which sounds remarkably similar to ‘ethnic redefinition’ and ‘reactive ethnicity’ – and he has published a book under the auspices of the old IRR. But his interest in ethnography is directed towards understanding minorities so that they are not excluded from the political process. His ‘defensive confrontation’ is not meant to applaud ethnic resistance but to describe the militancy of a disadvantaged black ‘underclass’. And his Race, Community and Conflict, although part of the IRR’s Survey, addressed itself to discrimination in housing in terms of a class hypo­ thesis – albeit housing-class.46 He is no nearer embracing a cultural pluralist model of race relations today than he was at the BSA Conference of 1969. Besides, his line of race relations descent (and dissent) is longer and more ‘radical’ than that of most other sociologists cited here – and takes in the struggle at IRR.He is today in a position to dominate race thinking and policy for the next decade or so.* For those reasons alone, it is well to look at his ideas in some detail.47

Taking the welfare state as given  (albeit  arrived  at  through  ‘class conflict’), Rex argues that the British working class, unlike the American, is able to organise both economically and politically on its own behalf – the first through its trade unions and the second through the  Labour  Party,  the  ‘political  arm’  of  the trade  union movement.

*He was appointed director of the Social Science Research Council Research Unit in Ethnic Relations at Aston University as from October 1979.

And, since the Labour Party ‘provides one of the two alternative gov­ernments in this country’, it is ‘not merely in a position to interfere with the free capitalist economy in the workers’ interests, but it has also suc­ceeded, through the creation of welfare services, in providing the worker with a social wage over and above the wages which he obtains from his employer’. That does not mean that  there are no ‘differences in the distribution of power and property … which lead to bargaining, competition, conflict and compromise between those who are differentially placed within the system’ – not only as regards the employment market but also as regards other markets such as housing, education and welfare and social services. Nor does it mean that there are not as many bargaining processes and parties or associations as there are markets or allocative sectors. ‘But in practice … the Labour Party, as the party of the industrial workers, has acted as the agent of the disadvantaged in all sectors and those other parties become for the most part lobbies within the labour movement.’ And in the process of political conflict and bargaining, the worker in the welfare state has achieved not only ‘a set of rights as a citizen which are more important to him than those which derive purely from class membership’, but also a culture of ‘social solidarity’ and ‘mutual aid’ which is in direct contrast to ‘the culture of capitalist individualism’.

The ‘immigrant  minorities’, however, have not found entry into this ‘complex system’. They have not received the same service and support from the labour movement and working-class culture as have white workers. They do not have the same access to markets. Their position, in fact, ‘approximates to a situation’ in which they have ‘hardly pene­trated to positions of property and power’, are underprotected in the working-class framework and therefore ‘concentrated in the most inse­cure, dirtiest, heaviest and most ill-paid jobs … , have their housing provided separately and on an inferior basis to that of the working class as a whole … and find … their children … concentrated in schools which were inferior to and provided less opportunities for advancement than those attended by the average working-class child’. And to the extent that this is so,* they are fast becoming a class apart, an ‘underclass’, tending ‘to fight separately from and sometimes against the native working class’ through their own cultural and political organisations. And even where they ‘formally belong to unions and affirm support for them’, blacks do not receive the protection in their ‘social and cultural spheres’ that the labour movement affords the native working class. Hence, to protect themselves from a hostile world, they have had to turn to ‘militant black movements which are neighbourhood –  rather than work-based and which deal centrally, not with work problems, but with the problems which the young unem­ployed and under-employed face in their conflicts with the forces of law and order’ -often from a position of ‘defensive  confrontation’.  Not that ‘defensive confrontation’ is a bad thing, because militancy is more likely to get black workers into the labour movement than the ‘paterna­lism of labour leaders’. There is the danger, however, that some minori­ties might refuse to identify with society altogether, ‘preferring to adopt a pariah position, being in the society and not of it, and developing their own insulated social system’.

*Note that Rex does not say that this is so — his commitment is to scenarios, models, ideal types. Hence also the need to quote him at length.

The business of the policy-makers, then, is to heal the rifts which might be opened up ‘by the continued suppression of Asians and West Indians into an “underclass” position’ by integrating them into the mainstream of British working-class politics and affording them the same rights to collective bargaining and the same access to jobs, hous­ing and education as the native working class. And the business of the social scientist in race relations research is to prepare the way for such political action by describing and analysing the black condition – not in terms of the immediate social reality (for, panicky perceptions could well argue for social control), but in terms of the underlying structures that produce and sustain that condition. Which means, of course, that sociologists cannot be impervious to value judgements or be politically neutral – there is a  morality  that  shapes  our  ends.  Nevertheless, they ‘cannot by themselves change the world’ – they can only provide the understanding that stiffens the political will.

But whose political will? All sorts: governments, unions, politicians, groups, even individuals. What about the state defined as ‘the execu­tive committee of the ruling class’? For Rex such a notion of the state does not exist, only power structures and status groups. And class? Yes, class – but class for Rex is not about the social relations of production but about differential access to markets. Hence there are as many classes as there are markets and at least as many political wills as there are ‘classes’ – a whole plurality of wills. Even  the ‘underclass’ has a political will of sorts – ‘defensive confrontation’ – which will hopefully get it into the welfare state’s class system proper, there to be taken up – and up – by the labour movement and Labour govern­ments.

But how did this underclass come about? Why is it black/colonial? What is the connection between it being black/colonial and its position as an underclass? What does that connection augur for its future – at a time of recession and the dismantling of the welfare state? These, how­ ever, are not questions to which Rex addresses himself in the main. When he does raise them, he treats of them disparately, not in a coherent systematic fashion that would lead to holistic analysis. And even then it is left to the reader to pick out the various answers and piece them together. He refers, for instance, to Britain importing ‘immigrant labour according to her needs’, but does not say why the labour was black, except to make some reference (elsewhere) to ‘colonial social structures’ and ‘race relations situations’. Again, ‘no preparation was made for the reception of immigrants’. Why not? ‘A wall of discrimi­nation was thrown up. The immigrant minorities who arrived found themselves stuck in semi-ghetto neighbourhoods … ‘ Why –  apart from all that business about differential markets – and even then, why differential in their particular case? Finally, Britain faces a ‘new dilemma’ of absorbing not ‘immigrants and refugees’, but ‘minority communities with an underclass status into the mainstream of British society’. How did they become an underclass? We have come full circle.

Rex’s analysis, in other words, does not show how colonial exploi­tation threw up an unwanted pool of labour in the colonies which post­ war Britain could draw on as and when it pleased without cost to itself; how the ideas of racial superiority, developed in the colonies, were honed into a fine tool of exploitation of ‘immigrant’ workers by political parties and governments (Labour and Tory alike) and came to inhere in every institution of British society, consigning blacks to the position of a sub­ proletariat;t how such institutional racism, in a time of deep recession and severe unemployment, provides a Tory government with a rationale not simply for exploitation but for repatriation; and how, indeed, such a return of Labour to its original reserves accords with current imperialist designs to move capital to Labour and not vice versa.

These are the things that speak to the experience of the black ‘under­ class’ and tell them how they came to be where they are – and what they can do about it. They are also the things that tell them that what they should want is not an in into the capitalist system but an end to it.* They are, finally, the things that connect them both to the revolutionary working class of this country and to the liberation movements of the Third World and bring to their struggle an international consciousness and dimension.**


*Even if blacks did not know about the capitalist ‘state’, they would have, out of their own experience of racism, invented one.

**In Rex’s hands this connection is not so much organic as metaphysical and is the subject not of hope but of warning (qualified of course). ‘The immigrant still has links with his own homeland, and if he is forced into a reactive militancy this may come to be defined not in metropolitan European terms, but in terms of the Third World Revolution.’

To put it on a more rarified level, the analysis presented here shows the centrality of racism to capitalist exploitation, whether in the peri­phery or in the centre, and points out that the struggle against racism today has also to be a struggle against imperialism. But then again such an understanding stems from an analysis of society in terms of political economy. Rex,however, is a self-confessed political sociologist. Politi­cal sociology in the final analysis – Rex’s political sociology at any rate – entrusts the task of changing society to political parties, political economy puts it in the hands of the oppressed and the exploited.

As a programme for policy-makers, however, Rex’s arguments are fine, but then they do not need all this theory to convince them – only a belief in the welfare state which, if they want to keep intact, should include the black underclass. Whom is Rex going to speak to, though, when the party in power represents a benighted capitalism which is determined to dis-assemble the welfare state altogether? Rex has an out there, too, for although his analysis seems to be frozen in the welfare state model, he implies that his model itself can hold only ‘so long as the balance of forces prevails’ or there is ‘a truce in the class war’. But then he also believes that sociologists could help to ‘shift the debate on to a different level, where questions about the social system can be asked and debated anew by all parties’.

This is policy-oriented research at its best – both moral and  politi­cal – combining both Mason’s early morality with Deakin ‘s latter-day purposiveness. If it is sometimes ethnic-oriented (Rex does say that eth­nography in helping to understand minority cultures can play a positive political role), it still does not smack of the paternalism of the ethnic school – particularly if the researchers are ‘black’ and/or ‘left’. If it is pluralist, it is not culturally so, but politically. Rex is not a do-gooder, a cheer-leader even; he is a go-between, a referee, an ombudsman -a new radical in old clothes. If it sometimes smacks of marxism, put it down to terminology (confused of course) not to analysis – for Rex is a good man lost among Weberians.